HESSE | WILKE: A CHRONOLOGY
PAINTING / SCULPTURE
HESSE | WILKE: A CHRONOLOGY
PAINTING / SCULPTURE
Hesse and Wilke begin their artistic careers with painting and two-dimensional work. Hesse pursues painting more seriously than Wilke, while Wilke, who focuses on drawing, works with sculpture before Hesse, with the exception of a sculptural costume of jersey and chicken wire Hesse makes for a Happening by Allan Kaprow, Walter De Maria, David Weinrib, and Peter Forakis in 1962.
Painting and sculpture, or two- and three-dimensional art, and the relationships between them, remain important for both artists throughout their lives. While Hesse returns to the frame and the flat surface in a number of her sculptural works, Wilke works with both sculptural objects and the iconographies of sculpture in her performances and photography and is asked to play the part of Venus in an early performance directed by Lil Picard.
As a young adult, Hesse identifies herself confidently as an Abstract Expressionist. She seeks out an education that will allow her to develop in this mode at Cooper Union, the Art Students League, and Yale University, but is frustrated not to find it. In her Seventeen magazine feature, Hesse describes her commitment to abstraction: “For me, being an artist means to see, to observe, to investigate... I paint what I see and feel to express life in all its reality and movement.”7
After graduating from Yale and returning to live in New York, Hesse focuses on developing a mature artistic practice. Although still concerned with the abstract in this period, Hesse also explores figuration. This coincides with a period of negotiating conflicting feelings: her confidence as an artist, her desire for success and recognition, and difficulties in her personal life. In 1960 she produces a series of nineteen paintings—some oil on canvas, some oil on Masonite—that pose figures against abstract backgrounds. In her analysis of these works, Helen Molesworth notes Hesse’s interest in Willem de Kooning, suggesting that Hesse’s “thick impasto and her recurrent use of pinks and white flesh tones” call back to de Kooning’s “making a kind of parity between paint and flesh.”8 The figures in these paintings—usually one or two, sometimes three—seem to stage forms of relation. Played out in line, color, and scale, these usually ambiguously gendered figures are bound or divided by Hesse’s sinuous brushstrokes.
The paintings of single figures from 1960 are recognized as self-portraits. Depicted in close-up or three-quarter length compositions, the figures are rendered in thick paint, resulting in opaque blocks of color that nonetheless appear ghostly and contingent.
In the early years of the decade, Hesse also works consis-tently on paintings and drawings. In 1961, Hesse has an exhibi-tion of works at the John Heller Gallery—her first outside Yale University—Donald Judd writes of these works on paper, “Her small and capersome ink-and-wash drawings are a combination of the stroke (used as both sign and association) and of encompassing rectangles.”9 The exhibition, Drawings: Three Young Americans, opens on April 11th and also includes work by Donald Berry and Harold Jacobs, two of her fellow class-mates from Cooper Union.
On March 12, 1963, Hesse has her first solo exhibition, Eva Hesse: Recent Drawings, at Allan Stone Gallery, New York. She exhibits pen, ink, and collage works. Valerie Peterson writes of the exhibition, “She smashes down on little cut out shapes, half-erased ideas, repetitive linear strikings... [and] invents dimension and position with changes of kinds of stroke, levels of intensity, starting and breaking momentum, and by redefining a sense of place from forces which are visible coefficients of energy.”10 Hesse’s paintings, completed this year, are similarly fragmented and layered.
Wilke’s early experiments in two dimensions range from life drawings and images of flowers to a series of abstract paintings. She works in charcoal, pastel, pencil and ink, and oil paint. Her prints and black and white drawings of the early 1960s recall the work of New York school painters Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell.
Alongside her early sculptures, Wilke makes a series of acrylic on canvas paintings. The works combine the geometric backgrounds with organic but ambiguous forms that are twisted and appar-ently misshapen. Despite their pastel tones, these forms appear both sensuous and sinister. Although obscure, Wilke’s use of dotted lines makes them suggestive of explanatory diagrams.
Wilke’s work in pastel from the mid-1960s deploys multiple phallic and vulvic forms, thighs, bottoms, and breasts in abstracted fields as in Untitled (c. 1960s). The expressive strokes of these works contrast with the smooth finish of the concurrent paintings, but many share some of the same pastel palette.
In One Car Just Ain’t Enough These Days, one large phallic form takes up most of a sketchbook page, although its shaft comprises a cluster of other smaller phallic and testicular forms. The thrust of the tip meets a thatch of dark pubic hair-like strokes, in which the title of the work is picked out in bubble letters. The sentiment suggests the need for multiple sexual partners, or the failure of machinic machismo. Wilke’s combination of language, expressive gesture, and fragmented but erotic content is reminiscent of Lee Lozano’s pastel drawings, which similarly present a desirous, if brutal sexuality.
Later, the imagery in these two-dimensional works becomes more abstract and the forms rendered in acrylic are also made in pastel. Wilke also incorporates collaged elements into these works, often including personal materials such as photographs and greeting cards in their surfaces. Perhaps a means to keep these mementos, or to transform their sentiments, they provide a starting point, and a point of opposition for the abstract lines—curvilinear and geometric— drawn in pastel.
While Wilke is working in two dimensions, she also begins her sculpture, experimenting with both ceramic and fiber-glass to create her early vulvic reliefs and box-sculptures with ambiguously gendered forms. For her early works in terracotta, Wilke mostly embraces the earthy colors of the materials, maintaining a rawness to their form, although works like Scharlatt Rousse (1965) were glazed, appearing black with faint impressions of the orange terracotta visible beneath the surface and inside its box-like forms.
Wilke writes of her progression in these early works, “from about 1959 or ’60 I did what could be considered erotic landscapes and fountains. Then from ’60 to ’63 I worked in ceramics, creating layered vaginal forms in natural browns and terracotta. I added color in around ’63, pink ceramics, and that’s when the vulvic forms evolved.”11
The earlier works play with vaginal and phallic forms, some-times in objects and scaled to the hand—as in Scharlatt Rousse—and sometimes in boxes to be looked into—as with That Fills Earth… (1965).
These sculptures invite a tactile response and perhaps even present themselves as bodily analogues to be poked, penetrated, or licked; for instance, the title of Scharlatt Rousse is a pun on Wilke’s sister’s married name and a type of sweet they shared as children.12 The emergence of the vulvic forms prompts a shift to what she thinks of as a “new sculptural form” that was evocative but unstable in its referent, subject to the process of making, as well as coincident with a new awareness of woman’s orgasmic potential. Some of Wilke’s vulvic sculptures are made from a circle of clay, which she folds together in one gesture.
In 1974 Wilke exhibits these sculptures at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, in her second solo exhibition there, along with the video-performance Gestures. For the duration of the video, Wilke touches her face, manipulating it like a sculptural material. If the one-fold sculptures invite comparisons with the body, in Gestures, Wilke reverses the paradigm and presents her own body as subject to process. As the critic James Collins writes of the sculptures in Artforum, “You can either read them as metaphors for genitalia or as Process sculpture—one fold, two fold and so on. Wilke would clearly like both.”13
With the inclusion of Gestures in her Feldman exhibition, Wilke underscores the relationship between the body and abstraction, and also foregrounds the artist’s body as a material for artmaking. While Wilke’s body art ranges from live performance to videotaped performance and performance staged for photography—what she calls her Performalist Self-Portraits—she also references sculptural traditions in these works, measuring her own body up against art historical traditions and actual sculptural works. This is true of her Super-t-Art series, discussed later in this chronology, and her installation at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York, My Country ‘Tis Of Thee, from 1976, where Wilke superimposes large photographic cut-outs of herself in between the columns of a neoclassical façade, among other later works, such as Venus Pareve (1982–84), for which Wilke casts herself as a partial Venus de Milo.
In 1964 Hesse goes to Kettwig an der Ruhr, Germany, with her husband, the sculptor Tom Doyle. The invitation comes from the German art collector and industrialist Freidrich Arnhard Scheidt and his wife Isabel, who allow the artists to use the abandoned top floor of their factory in the city as a studio. Before they settle to work in Kettwig, Hesse and Doyle travel through Europe, visiting numerous exhibi-tions including DOCUMENTA III. Over the course of the trip, Hesse also meets and befriends Linda and Hans Haacke, Jurgen Schultze-Vellinghausen, Erika and Manfred Tischer, Hannelore and Karl-Heinz Hering, Rolf Ricke, Bernard Völke, Franz Erhard Walther, Harald Szeemann and Arturo Schwarz.14
It is over the course of the year in Germany that Hesse begins to work in three dimensions. After further experiments with collage—including cutting up and incorporating fragments of old works in new ones—at the end of 1964, Hesse begins to use string and fabric in her compositions. Bolstered by Doyle’s support, she explores work in plaster and cord, as well as weaving, threading, and knotting. In a diary entry for December 4th, she declares, “Started sculpture. Lead wire through a huge screen. Shortage of wire forced a change to plaster.”
Hesse finds the screen for her first sculpture in the factory, and she begins to see the potential of what she calls the “junk” around her. In a letter to her friend Rosalyn Goldman she writes, “I finally took a screen, heavy mesh which is stretched on a frame... and taken cord which I cut into smaller pieces. I soak them in plaster and knot each piece through a hole and around wire. It is compulsive work which I enjoy… I have plans with other structures and working more with plaster. It might work its way into something special.”15
In January 1965 Hesse completes a series of pen and ink drawings. In these flat, linear images Hesse develops a machinic-organic language of forms that seemingly combines motifs from the factory with anatomical tubes, sphincters, and membranes. In a further letter to Goldman she writes, “My drawings are very HARD. That is they are forms I have always used but enlarged and very clearly defined. Thus they look like machines, however, they are not functional and are nonsense.”16
Hesse completes seven paintings in 1965 while in Kettwig. These works also include the linear forms evident in the monochromatic drawings, but here they are boxed and compartmentalized, rendered in restricted palettes of pastel colors.
After making some test pieces with rows of string molded over found objects, in March Hesse completes her first relief, Ringaround Arosie. She writes to Sol LeWitt:
So here I sit after 2 days of working on a dumb thing which is three dimensional supposed to be continuity with last drawing. All borders on pop at least to the European eye, that is anything not pure or abstract [expressionist] is pop like. The 3d one now actually looks like breast + penis - but that’s o.k. + I should go on with it maybe...17
In the following months Hesse makes additional relief works using string, cord, and plaster on board. She experiments with color, using ink, enamel, and varnish. Hesse describes the reliefs as “built forms” and quickly extends them off the surface of the works. This direction of her work is also characterized by her apparently descriptive and playful titles including Two Handled Orangekeyed Utensil, Legs of a Walking Ball, and Oomamaboomba.
With these reliefs Hesse becomes more experimental, bringing new materials into the surface of her works or collaging found materials onto and extending out of the picture plane. For Up the Down Road, Hesse uses Styrofoam to create an uneven lunar texture, over which a purple ombré cord twists diagonally, plugged into the top and bottom corners. In C-Clamp Blues, a bauble hangs below the panel from two clumps of wire, creating a confused bodily correlative that speaks of both phallus and testicles. Eighter from Decatur is marked by a clawed, spinning mechanism in the bottom right of the panel that seems to radiate energy in the yellow cord strata that ripple out from it. In each of these works industrial fragments take on new and ridiculous, or to use Hesse’s term, “groovy,” associations.18
Hesse’s exhibition, Eva Hesse: Materialbilder und Zeichnungen, opens at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf on August 6, 1965. She shows fourteen of the reliefs and fifty drawings. Included in the exhibition is Cool Zone, a work which although still bound to the wall, marks a departure from the panels Hesse uses in the other relief works. The work comprises a round metal fixture, through which Hesse threads an enamel-painted cord.
When Hesse returns to New York in September 1965, she makes an untitled six-foot-tall sculpture, incorporating a spoked wheel, one of the first objects that entirely departs from the flat picture plane and that has resonances with Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913, remade 1951). In October, she makes her final work in color, until she begins to work with latex two years later.
Over the following months into 1966, Hesse begins to work with new materials including balloons, inner tubes, surgical materials, latex, polyurethane sheeting, nets, and balls. Many of these objects, including Ingeminate, Several, and Long Life, as well as two untitled works also from 1965, are illustrated in Gretchen Lambert’s 1966 photograph of Hesse’s studio.
In January 1966 Hesse completes Hang Up, which she exhibits in Abstract Inflationism and Stuffed Expressionism in March of the same year, along with Ishtar and Long Life. Hesse’s friend, the art critic and exhibition organizer, Lucy R. Lippard, discusses Hesse’s work in a review for Art International. 19 Hang Up comprises a wall-bound frame from which an elliptical tube extends corner to corner. The allusion to painting is important and the emptying of the picture plane in favor of the sculptural element marks a decisive break with the canvas for Hesse. This theme continues with her sculptures Metronomic Irregularity I and II (1966), the latter of which is shown in Lippard’s Eccentric Abstraction at the Fischbach Gallery in September 1966.
In 1967 Hesse continues to make a series of wall-based pieces including Ditto, One More Than One, and Addendum.
She writes of her sculptural practice:
1 bag is a bag
2 semi-sphere – a semi-sphere tube a tube
3 art is what is
4 tension and freedom
5 opposition and contradiction abstract objects
6 not symbols for something else detached but intimate personal20
After working on a series of square reliefs with washers such as Cincture, Hesse begins to move away from the wall and experiments with floor-based work. Her Washer Table marks the first time that she flips the plane to the horizontal. Around the same time, she begins to explore box forms, beginning with the raw Inside. In June 1967 she makes Accession I. Accession II is the first work she has fabricated, at Arco Metals.
Hesse and Wilke both experiment with box forms; Hesse’s box sculptures are more abstract than the bodily associations suggested by Wilke’s early sculptures. Nonetheless, Hesse’s boxes and Wilke’s continuation of her vulvic works retain an interest in the relationship between the inside and the out-side, as well as the regularity of the form of the box and the irregularity of what it contains; although for Wilke’s work this also extends to the enclosing folds. Jo Applin writes of the dynamic of seeing and not seeing in the 1960s box forms of sculptors such as Hesse, and her contemporary Lee Bontecou, and this is also true of Wilke’s work.21 After her 1966 exhibition at Castagno Gallery—her first show—Wilke comments on her interest in the relationship between surfaces and insides; “When you’re beautiful, and I’m resigned to the fact that I am, no one ever looks inside you. I want to show people that the outside, the beauty is just garbage. The true beauty is what is inside me, inside you.”22
Wilke is clearly aware that “box” is a euphemism for “vagina,” but with this comment she connects her abstracted sculptures to her own body. At the same time, with these sculptures, Wilke invites a new aesthetic response, uprooted from the visual and instead concerned with the sensorial—even the orgasmic. Although Hesse shares an interest in upturning the viewer’s engagement with objects, she never goes as far in this as Wilke, who invites a more specific bodily response.
Hesse and Wilke explore a number of the same forms, processes, and materials in their sculptural work. They also share a preoccupation with drawing and two-dimensional work; even if both artists leave the canvas behind to pursue other modes of working, they keep up a dialogue with the picture plane and the wall. In this, they both also share the need to mark their departure from the dominance of Modernist painting, and particularly Abstract Expressionism. This is a literal identification for Hesse to overcome, but Wilke also contends with the legacy of the New York School in her work, particularly in her early black and white drawings and in her latex wall-hangings, which, like Lynda Benglis’ floor-based poured sculptures, deflate the gestural abstraction associated with the heroic painting of artists like Jackson Pollock.
Wilke is best known for her sculpture and performance practice, but she works in two dimensions throughout her artistic career. These works are less frequently exhibited in her lifetime, but she does not keep her watercolors or sketches private either. In 1976 she is commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art to make an image for a Christmas card. In response, Wilke produces a series of self-portraits. As if seen from above in each work, Wilke poses turning her head with eyes closed, displaying a wing sprouting from her shoulder. Across the series, the wings change—one is Dürer-esque, another more Baroque. Far more saccharin than Wilke’s abstract drawings, live works, or photographic self-portraits, the images seem to perform innocence in the face of her increasing renown in the New York art world.
Wilke continues her experiments with self-portraiture in watercolor throughout her career. In November 1986, she begins a series of watercolors titled B.C., which stands for “before cancer.” Made when she suspects she is unwell but before her diagnosis, the works are comprised of a series of undulating strokes in primary colors that pick out the con-tours of a face. Not recognizably Wilke, these self-portraits are intimate, internal self-reflections of a changing sense of self, rather than a meditation on performance and pose.
During the course of her illness and treatment, which Wilke makes the subject of her work, she continues to make draw-ings and watercolors. These include fragmented and colorful sketches of hands and faces for Intra-Venus and a series of watercolor flowers on hospital pillowcases she begins during her hospitalization in 1992.
Her Brushstrokes series is a pun on painterly practice and her own use of the body as material. For this series, Wilke gathers hair from her hairbrush as it falls out following her chemotherapy, before affixing it to paper with an invisible adhesive.
[BANNER, LEFT] Photo of Eva Hesse in her studio, 1968, by Fred W. McDarrah / Getty Images. [BANNER, RIGHT] Photo of Hannah Wilke in her Broome Street studio, 1973. Image courtesy Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles.
Helen A. Cooper, “Chronology,” in Eva Hesse: A Retrospective, ed. Helen A. Cooper (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 20.
Helen Molesworth, “Me, You and Us: Eva Hesse’s Early Paintings,” in Eva Hesse: 1960, ed. E. Luanne McKinnon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), p. 14.
Donald Judd, “Don Berry, Eva Hesse and Harold Jacobs,” Arts Magazine 35 (April 1961), p. 60.
Cooper, p. 27.
Bonnie Finberg, “Body Language: Hannah Wilke: Interview,” Cover, (September 1989), p. 16.
The Charlotte Russe was a sponge cake topped with whipped cream and a cherry that was particularly popular in New York candy stores, luncheonettes, and bakeries.
James Collins, “Hannah Wilke,” Artforum, June, 1974, p. 72.
Cooper, p. 31.
Hesse, quoted in Lucy Lippard, Eva Hesse (New York: New York University Press, 1976): pp. 28–29.
Ibid., pp. 35–38.
Cooper, p. 33.
Jo Applin, “C-Clamp Blues: Eva Hesse’s Relief Work,” in Eva Hesse: 1965, ed. Barry Rosen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), pp. 40–49.
Lucy R. Lippard, “An Impure Situation (New York and Philadelphia Letter),” Art International 10 (May 1966): p. 64.
Cooper, p. 42.
Jo Applin, ‘“This Threatening and Possibly Functioning Object’: Lee Bontecou and the Sculptural Void,” Art History 29, no.3 (June 2006): pp. 476–502.
Princenthal, p. 19.